Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of the cult television movie from 1973. Directed by comic artist Troy Nixie and written by Guillermo del Toro, this new version is an old school supernatural horror film, with an emphasis on scares rather than shocks and gore. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its ghoulish moments and it is plain to see why this film didn’t secure the PG-13 rating it initially sought. What is unusual about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, is its traditional approach to its subject matter. It is a far cry from the found footage horror movies such as Paranormal Activity that were dominating the box office at the time. In many ways it’s a homage to the halcyon days of studios-based horror from the likes of Amicus, Hammer and American International Pictures. The initial theatrical release of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was delayed due to the sale of Miramax pictures in 2010, and the film did not secure a US and UK distribution deals until late 2011. Despite the having Guillermo del Toro associated with the production, the movie didn’t gain the traction it deserved.
Interior designers Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are busy renovating Blackwood Manor in Rhode Island, the former home of the artist Lord Blackwood. The aristocrat vanished along with his son, under mysterious circumstances years before. Alex’s ex-wife unexpectedly sends their daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) to live with them it which causes problems for both Alex and Kim. Sally does not get on with Kim and feels that her father does not want her living with him. Despondent and alone, Sally finds a hidden basement while exploring the old house. Alex's employee William Harris, who is a descendant of Blackwood, warns Sally to stay away from the basement but Sally is drawn to the room by hushed voices calling to her. After removing the cover of the ash pit strange events begin to occur in the house and grounds. Kim’s clothes are slashed, and Harris is attacked. Sally claims it is the work of the creatures that live in the ash pit, however, Alex and Kim believe that it is only her imagination and that she is traumatised by her parents’ divorce.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a mainstream horror film which features a quality cast of character actors as well as good production values. The photography and production design are borderline gothic and the characters are unusually well defined by genre standards, thanks to the Guillermo del Toro’s intelligent screenplay. There were some complaints upon release that the story’s weakest element were the two adult leads and their inability to deal with unfolding events. However, I felt the opposite and thought that their inaction just added credibility to the plot. So many career parents are oblivious to their children’s needs these days and seem to think that most problem can be medicated away or dealt with my a few counselling sessions. The CGI beasties are suitably unpleasant and are a good example of computer effects that works well. They remain relatively discrete throughout the film through clever lighting and editing. Some critics balked at what they saw as “emotional and physical torture” of a young girl as entertainment. But I think this is a misjudgement and a failure to understand this nature of the horror genre. The central character of Sally, shows a great deal of courage and resourcefulness in confounding her attackers. Yet the screenplay doesn’t make the mistake of making her invincible. She is after all a child and is therefore restricted by a child’s mindset and abilities.
The central theme of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one that is common to Guillermo del Toro’s other movies; that many legends about supernatural creature such as fairies, sprites, gnomes and other elementals have a credible basis in reality. Furthermore, our romanticised ideas of such beings are frequently wrong and the reality of the situation is far more sinister. Hinting at ancient races and forces that pre-date human civilisation has always been an interesting theme for the horror genre to explore, both in film and literature. Similar ideas can be found in Clive Barker’s much maligned feature film, Nightbreed. There is a nice reference in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to a deal that was brokered between the malevolent ancient race and the Catholic Church. This faux history adds an enjoyable facet to the story.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is not without flaws, though. There are a few logical plot holes (as there often are for the horror genre to work effectively) and certain aspects of the story are not developed sufficiently. As ever the observant viewer will wonder why some characters vanished from the plot or question why a specific course of action wasn’t taken. Yet overall this is a creative and genuinely creepy movie that is a welcome change from many contemporary genre offerings. With its strong screenplay and a traditional quasi-gothic approach, it manages to offer tension, suspense and a few unpleasant jolts. The ending is suitably melancholic as you’d expect from Guillermo del Toro. There is also a very pleasing and atmospheric soundtrack by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. Eight years on, and after only performing adequately at the box office, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark seems to have already been forgotten which, is a shame. This genre throwback merits a second look as it does have far more to offer than other horror movies.